Discussing the internet…offline

Spiegeltent inner roof canopy

Last week, I was part of the Scottish Law Librarians Group annual outing to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This year, the chosen talk was The Guardian debate, “Rethinking the Internet: is the web changing society for the worse?”, with the following description:

We have embraced the online revolution with open arms and nearly 20% of all retail purchases are now made via the internet. More than that, the internet appears to be empowering citizens in ways that challenge the traditional relationship between individual and state. Is the net effect positive or negative? Writer Nick Harkaway, novelist Naomi Alderman and James Gleick, author of The Information, lead the discussion. Chaired by Ian Katz, Deputy Editor of the Guardian. *

So, you’d think with that sort of blurb that the debate would allow some involvement from those not in the room, via the internet itself e.g. that someone official (the Book Festival does have a Twitter account, and they’re using a hashtag for the event) would be there to live tweet it, maybe taking questions from the wider audience on the internet to pass to the panel. Perhaps a Twitterfall display, to show tweets and comments being made about the event by both those in the room and those following the event from outside, as they were being made. And of course, there’d be a hashtag to allow people on Twitter to take part virtually, using the hashtag to allow an easy collation of tweets about that particular session. You can’t really have a debate about the internet without a hashtag, right?


There wasn’t the slightest hint of any desire by the organisers to use the exact medium that was being discussed, in order to allow a wider pool of people to be involved in the debate. As there was no hashtag, my friend Laura Kidd decided to set one up, and as you can see from the link below, there was plenty of activity on it. Imagine how much more reach and publicity the organisers would have had if they’d actually set up the hashtag themselves, and informed their many followers?

http://www.tweetdoc.org/View/51868/Rethinking-the-Internet **

The chair was also entirely disinterested in engaging with anything to do with the internet (in between his summing up of audience questions, during which he entirely altered and changed the original question being asked in about 50% of them, as he didn’t seem to understand what the audience members were asking), made lots of statements about why it was a Bad Thing (including, bizarrely, why internet dating was a terrible development), and did not want to hear about, or use the questions being raised by any of the people who were eagerly following the debate via Twitter.

The speakers themselves were excellent, and their discussions were obviously firing up a lot of people in the audience, who were keen to ask them questions inspired by their debate, and hands shot up all over the room when the chance came. This same enthusiasm from those online was thwarted, as there was no way for them to interact with the speakers, and no official tweeter in the room to direct their comments to, to channel them towards the speakers.

Sometimes, people just don’t seem to grasp the potential and worldwide reach of social media! This could have been a two-part event: the physical one, with the panel discussing, and the audience listening, with a virtual event running alongside, with thousands of people both inside and outside the venue taking part in a debate using the actual technology being discussed.

Instead, we got a discussion that included only those in the room, having their questions changed and simplified by the chair, and the event ending when the lights went up, instead of cascading outwards online, and continuing and developing in all sorts of interesting directions, for everyone to take part in.


Maybe next year, the Book Festival will get the hang of making and publicising hashtags for, if not each event, at least those ones where social media is being discussed and is therefore highly likely to be being used!

The Guardian Book Festival logo in the Spiegeltent

*Naomi Alderman was unable to be there, and the debate was actually chaired by author Ewan Morrison.

** Does not include Retweets, as far as I can tell. Tweets using the designated hashtag #GuardianRethink are still available as of 20 August, but will be deleted within a few days by Twitter.

The apparently unsociable librarian

I’m the first to admit, I love social media stuff. I’ve been on Twitter for almost 5 years, I (slightly grudgingly) eventually joined Facebook around the same time, and have played with all sorts of thing in between, from Formspring to Pinterest.

However – my use of all those sites is almost exclusively personal (apart from Twitter, which is actually heavily weighted towards work-relevant networks). There’s not actually much need that I can see to do anything involving social media in its current form for my own library service. I do enjoy reading about how academic and public libraries are furthering the use of their resources and exploring how to best use sites, using Facebook to inform users about events and service specifics, Twitter to respond to individuals, and Pinterest to collate interesting visual materials…but it just doesn’t work in my situation.

As a corporate librarian, I’m in a very different position from a public or academic librarians, in relation to sharing resources. Those types of services are set up to spread information, and allow as many people as possible to benefit from their resources, partially because the people using the resources are also helping to fund them (either through tuition fees or taxation). In a corporate library, the employing organisation has invested from their own funds to create their own library service, and properly staff it. A lot of time and effort is spent in a corporate library to create resources that are tailored to the needs and demands of internal service users, and which are therefore a valuable business asset, and definitely not a thing which could be shared. Corporate libraries cannot be sociable outside their own body – their work is for the benefit of their own, internal users only, the exact reverse of the situation for public and academic libraries.

And if it were possible to use social media in a manner suitable for sharing externally (eg for marketing purposes, which the library may have involvement in), most of the social media sites are based on the model of free sharing, e.g. Pinterest (although this has its own copyright-infringement issues, due to the sites enabling of such easy online sharing), or sites which are free because they carry advertising. This throws up all sorts of issues for a firm – what if the adverts on a free site were for an offensive service/company, or for a competitor of a client? By having firm-linked material on the same page, we could look like we were endorsing a client competitor. What if we accidentally infringed copyright on Pinterest by using an image that seemed freely and legally available, but in reality wasn’t? It could be a highly risky activity to be involved in.

Corporate library services basically have to be faceless, neutral, and non existent on social media.

So…don’t think I’m being unsociable if I’m not joining in with these discussions and experiments, but just remember: for every interesting public use of social media, there’s probably a corporate librarian watching it all, feeling frustrated that they can’t join in with the fun stuff…

Any other library service types out there unable to be sociable?

Thing 12 – social media and networks

Ok, Thing 12 is looking at “the role of social media in building up networks and a sense of community.” Now, I’ve got to say, I do love me a good social network. I’ve been a user of MySpace (back when it was actually cool), then moved on to Bebo, and finally, in the last two or three years, I’ve settled in to Facebook, and Twitter (with the obligatory LinkedIn presence, but I don’t count that as part of my part of my active social network), with a steady background of blogs.

The main benefit that I’ve gained from social media is using it to help me get to know so many professionals outside my own sphere. Scots law librarians are a small group, and our concerns are specific to the materials and data we have to work with. They can overlap when we work with UK issues, but otherwise, we’re focussed on what we need to do to deal with our own needs. Making contact with non-Scots law professionals, and regularly interacting with them has led to me making some great friendships with people who I’d never otherwise have met (and in some cases, I’ve still to actually get to meet in person). When I’ve sent out a cry for help for information on some specialist resource, or unusual materials, these contacts have been able to help me out. Without the funding to go to legal information professional events, I couldn’t have made those contacts in my sector. And I don’t see how, at any other point, I’d have been able to get to know academic or school librarians – our worlds just don’t overlap at all in any other way. It’s led to me regularly working virtually with Bethan Ruddock on our co-mentoring wiki, and I’ve only managed to meet her in real life once so far!

I’ve also benefited from online legal professional friends posting links to materials useful for my work – I often click on legal news links posted by others. They act as a sort of filter: picking up information, assessing it, and passing on the good stuff. In this way, I’ve found new news sources for my work, and kept myself abreast of the hot topics in various legal sectors – which is helpful, as I never know what I’m going to be asked to investigate next, and having a good general awareness of legal issues puts me one step ahead when I’m asked to research things.

I do try and be careful with my use of social media though – I have certain rules for certain sites. For example, on Facebook, I only allow ex-staff to add me – it’s my personal space, and that doesn’t overlap with work. I don’t share any real identifying data (birthplace, birth date, Uni, workplace, location etc) or any particularly personal things in status updates or comments – it’s for light entertainment only. On Twitter, I don’t allow workmates to follow me (nor do I follow them), I don’t use my real name or the name of the place I work, and if I share any information about what I’m doing (such as an interesting/unusual/frustrating research enquiry) I don’t name the person asking, or usually, even their gender. To the outside world, I may well appear to work in an odd place that’s staffed entirely by hermaphrodites. This may or may not be an accurate assumption.

I also don’t like any particular company to have too much access to my personal data – this is why I won’t open a Google+ account (as it would force me to use my real name) and why I immediately deleted Google Wave/Buzz/WhateverItWas when it launched, as it made me use my real name too. I can’t forget that Google’s an advertising company, and whatever it’s giving me for free (an email account, a blog, access to its new toy), I pay for by forfeiting some of my data privacy.

But in general… yeah, social media: I loves it, I does!

Thank you for going to events…now stop talking about them.

I like Twitter – it lets me (virtually, and often eventually, physically) meet lovely people. I’ve made contacts and friendships in the UK and abroad with information professionals in all sectors, programmers and coders of all types, lawyers and barristers in all fields, government staff of all types, teachers, au pairs, historians, housewives, artists…Through the ability to interact on Twitter, I’ve had help on many occasions to source hard to find materials, or been able to ask people with experience in other fields for advice.

But what I have really grown to hate is the people tweeting Every Single Point made at these events. When you tend to follow a lot of people who work in similar sectors (unsurprisingly for me, that’s librarians), you also find a lot of them go to the same events. And that means that you have a LOT of people tweeting exactly the same thing, sometimes differently worded, continuously during talks. The useful content of each tweet usually is low – the tweeter needs to use up characters to include the hashtag, punctuate to make sense of short points, and often there’s a need to include the initials of the speaker, all of which cuts some of the space available for information. When there are parallel sessions running at an event, you usually get different people tweeting about different talks, at the same time and with the same hashtag: very confusing! What also adds to the fun is when other people not attending feel that a point made in a tweet is so exciting, that they instantly retweet it, meaning you have both the tweet, and the immediate retweet clogging things up.

What I would much prefer is that they paid full attention to the talks (rather than trying to compress Big Ideas into 140 characters within 30 seconds of them being uttered), took personal notes, and then, if they really want to spread this information further, they use the information they noted down to write a blog post. I’d far rather read and comment on an overview of the important points of a talk, with the writers views on the event included, at a time that suits me, than be flooded by a stream on the day. A blog post allows discussion over a longer period of time, and allows those not able to monitor the tweets at the time that they are posted to be able to be part of the discussion. It also allows reference back to the discussion, rather than it being a throwaway five minutes which is soon lost to oblivion on Twitter.

I’ve tried exploring ways to block tweets using certain hashtags when the volume of them from events has become overwhelming, but as a protected user, my options for filtering out information via hashtag are limited – the resources I have been pointed towards either don’t work for protected accounts, or involve me unfollowing people. If I’m using a programme to automatically unfollow a dozen people, what are the chances that I’ll remember to refollow them? Not high. And doing that also would mean I would have someone who was following me and able to access my tweets, without me being able to speak to them. Not to mention the annoyance for the person I unfollow if they’re protected, and have to allow my ensuing request to be allowed to follow them again. So, no, not really much I can do about the tweet floods. Other than ignore Twitter during the period of certain events.Which is quite frustrating, as it’s such a useful tool.

Yes, I know a lot of people feel like they’re almost-attending a conference if they can follow the stream or hashtag, but to do that and interact you need to be following it in real time…which means that you if aren’t able to go to the event in the first place, and therefore are presumably currently working, where are you going to find the time to “virtually” attend throughout it?